Who Watches The Watchmen?
The little slip of paper they send you when you get called up for jury duty recommends that you bring along something to read, so it was about three hours into sitting quietly in the waiting room when I started cursing myself for forgetting my book at home. The first hour went by pretty quickly because I spent most of it examining the idiosyncrasies of my fellow potential jurors and their anxiously shaky knees. By late morning, however, I had already done some work, ate a bagel, stretched my legs, texted a friend, and squinted through Rachel Ray as she taught her audience how to make a playfully bold Mexican lasagna that uses taco meat and parboiled pasta sheets instead of ragu and tortillas. Meanwhile, my copy of Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel, Watchmen, was still sitting at home, going unread.
Bringing that book into a municipal building may have actually set off some alarms. Watchman is a dystopian masterpiece from the 80s about an American society that has fallen apart due to mistrust in the government, mistrust in the media and mistrust in each other. I’ve read it before, but I’m finding such tremendous nuance and complexity in it now. Back in the room, I studied two thin devices mounted near the ceiling, each glaring down at us in our endless rows of chairs. Once I concluded that they must have been security cameras, I laughingly recalled one of the book’s frequent messages of resistance, often seen graffitied across so many background walls, within so many of the comic’s panels: who watches the watchmen?
Without that book to keep my focus, I shifted my attention to learning the details of Facebook’s newly announced global financial system, called Calibra, which will deal in the transfer of its own new cryptocurrency, called Libra, across its own proprietary blockchain (basically the internet of the internet). When it launches next year, Libra will be backed by 27 of the world’s largest brands, corporations, and financial institutions, yet because Facebook has developed Calibra to manage this global bank, Facebook owns two seats at the table, while its partners will only have one seat each.
Facebook is particularly good at building these kinds of monopolies; not so long ago, the world’s most popular image-based network, Instagram, and the world’s largest, most secure private messaging system, WhatsApp, were self-owned and independently operated. Today, they are part of Facebook’s media empire, and will continue to merge technologically over the coming years, accomplishing greater reach into the conversations and interactions we engage in across social media. It should be noted that Facebook’s internal policies ended up alienating the respective creators of WhatsApp and Instagram, who all abandoned their creations and drove far away from the behemoth.
The company has gotten very good at eliminating anything that stands in its way. In the early decade, Snapchat was poised to become the world’s next hugest social media platform, with its quirky blend of bite-sized, ephemeral video stories and fun selfie filters. Under Facebook’s management, Instagram rolled out a similar Stories function, complete with those same selfie filters, to its much larger, well-established user base - ostensibly a carbon copy of Snapchat’s entire model - and Snapchat crumpled under the weight of ruthless determination.
The going joke for years is that Facebook’s population of 2.38 billion monthly users makes it the largest country in the world. For comparison, China has a population of 1.4 billion, India has 1.3 billion, and the US has 330 million. Each of these countries maintains their own national banking systems, and soon, the world’s largest network of people will also have its own bank, which it will operate without any direct government oversight.
In a separate story published today, three former content moderators who were contracted by Facebook, willfully broke their non-disclosure agreements, and came forward to share their chilling accounts of the injustices and unethical treatment they endured, and the post-traumatic stress they have each developed after shielding users of the social network from the most abject horrors possibly imagined by the modern day human.
The story documents a repetitive loop of moderators alerting Facebook/Contractor authorities to the most egregious content, observing very little systemic improvement or compassion from leadership, and then finding that same material cycling back into their review systems as part of the deluge of horribleness that gets uploaded every day. One worker described a constantly returning clip in which a mother nearly suffocates one of her babies.
Some of these employees watch up to 500 videos a day. “Graphic violence, hate speech, sexual solicitation, sexual exploitation…that kinda stuff,” is how one of them described the job. As humanity continues to rip itself apart, one wonders which is worse: a natural propensity for violence, or a robust platform that makes it easy to demonstrate it.
These three workers were part of a team of over 30,000 people who monitor the activity across the company’s networks and respond in an effort to enforce what Facebook defines as its law and order. The world’s largest country, which recently announced its own bank and currency, also has a police force of 30,000 cops.
I recently read a different piece on the myriad ways in which Google, Amazon, and yes, Facebook, are using carefully crafted human-computer-user interface interactions to improve the cognition of their own artificial intelligence systems. In the case of Facebook, they have built the most voluminous, most detailed, fastest facial recognition system in the world. If you scrolled through your phone right now and uploaded the latest selfie you took with your friend or family member, the system is smart enough to identify the people in that image before it’s finished uploading. When you tag your friend after the photo is posted, you’re confirming something Facebook already knows - and you’re making Facebook smarter by validating its AI-based assumption.
Facebook would prefer we think of Calibra, not as some monolithic new player on the stage of world finance, but as a service they are providing to the developing world. It’s these countries, Facebook argues, where people don’t have easy access to banking, though they now have access to Facebook, and therefore, Calibra. The company aims to extend its reach into these places through the deployment of a fleet of drones, which would float above remote countries and beam down internet, all but guaranteeing that most people’s first interactions on the web will happen across a Facebook platform.
Addressing the needs of impoverished citizens is a good play - it is a true and fundamental issue that much of the developing world would advance faster if more people had financial agency and autonomy. But none of the renderings Facebook/Calibra offered on launch day appear to address that use case; instead, their marketing materials show someone named Eddie being gifted 95.31 Libra [≋] (the equivalent to 1,800 Mexican pesos), qualifying the gift as “some money for the month!” “Take care <3,” the message reads.
Sitting back in the waiting room, I exhaled sharply in discomfort over this glaringly transparent bit of signal virtuing from Facebook, and, at the same time, I noticed that nearly everyone around me was using a Facebook-operated service on their phones. My neighbors to the sides were each using Messenger, while the smattering of folks in front of me mindlessly scrolled through their Instagram feeds. I went back to wishing I had brought my book.
I’m rereading Watchmen because HBO is turning it into a series soon, and the folks behind it have great bona fides, and the source material is amazing. I’m rereading it because I’m so grateful for any minute of the day now that isn’t spent staring at screens. I’m rereading it because its just so much fun; despite the heavy-handed way I described it earlier, it is a superhero story full of masked crusaders and naughty language and a man made entirely of energy, who prefers the solitude of Mars to the company of the gorgeous dame who loves him. It’s about humanity, and how it reacts to itself and to things that are foreign and alien. But it’s also searing and methodical, anarchic and thought-provoking. It deals with revenge, and assault, and murder. It deals with war, and politics, governments and captains of industry. And it fixates heavily on a divided culture, whose chief inhabitants wrestle with the moments in their pasts when they could have intervened to stop the new world order of mutually assured destruction and corporatocracy from taking hold.
I once declared, a few years ago, that Mark Zuckerberg would one day run for president, positing that his global reach and his ability to disrupt a system by building a bigger system might be a good fit for the most powerful leader in the world. As it turns out, POTUS would be a step down for the world’s youngest billionaire.
Zuckerberg currently resides over the world’s largest population. He built the smartest intelligence system that we’ve ever seen through the willful ignorance of privacy policies and practical ethics, and he leveraged that system to extend his reach into every region of the globe. He frequently meets with the world’s leaders, communes with the heads of the largest corporations, and has now built his own bank, financial network, and currency, which will instantly have the largest customer base on day one. Despite years of horrible publicity surrounding the failure to protect Facebook’s users, the easy manipulation of elections both foreign and domestic, the use of Facebook in an ongoing genocide, and a propensity by mass murderers to broadcast their crimes on Facebook Live, Mark Zuckerberg remains the head of the company, seemingly invulnerable and largely unaccountable.
Mark Zuckerberg is a benevolent dictator - a modern day Ozymandias (the Greek name for Ramesses II), the greatest and most powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom. Coincidentally, Ozymandias was also the superhero alter ego of the world’s most powerful man, Adrian Veidt, in Alan Moore’s Watchmen (seriously, you should read Watchmen).
One of my favorite characters in that book is a fascinating proxy for the audience, and his story seems particularly relatable to the very real world implications of this new Facebook empire. He witnesses the murder that sets off the entire story, and he’s introduced as a weirdo who walks through the crime scene on a busy New York street, carrying a sign that foretells the apocalypse. He returns throughout the story as one member of the Greek chorus, weaving in and out of the larger narrative, and always carrying his sign. The words “THE END IS NEIGH” drip with the similarly scrawled lettering of a different, oft-grafittied phrase visible across so many background walls, in so many of the comic’s panels. It is a message of resistance, meant to inspire discussion and activism, and it implores the sheepish society of a divided world to look at something egregious and find a collective solution.
Realizing how big and unstoppable Facebook is becoming on a near daily basis, it’s a question that I believe demands deep consideration from all of us who still use its programs, and willfully function in lockstep with everything that keeps it in power: who watches the watchmen?